There's no doubt that Puzzle & Dragons is addictive, but there's also a lot of substance behind it. Sometimes that substance is over-bearing and intimidating, but underneath is a very polished, very satisfying character-driven puzzle game that I can safely say has earned it's place on my 3DS next to other classics like Pokemon Puzzle Challenge. Some people will get more mileage out of it than others, even between the two different versions included in this package, but it's perfect for pick-up-and-play sessions at any time of day for any skill level.
+Excellent foundational puzzle mechanics
+A mountain of content that will keep you busy for ages
+Charming localization that has a lot of fun
+A great transposition of a mobile game onto a dedicated system
-A lot of bells and whistles that can get in the way for people who just want puzzles
-An unadventurous use of the Mario license
-Some unappealing animations and graphic designs
-Numbers everywhere all the time. So many stats. So many things -Everything explodes in a flurry of colour and light. Rainbows have lost all meaning to me.
Originally designed as a mobile game by GungHo, the Puzzle and Dragons franchise has dominated a huge portion of the market share for fans of puzzles and also fans of dragons in Japan. It's free-to-play model and RPG mechanics have secured its place on the phones of millions of people. But far too often we're reminded that mobile and console game design don't always work on the same wavelengths. Can a fresh coat of Mario-themed paint and a 2-games-in-1 deal make this retail release worth diving into?
Puzzle and Dragons at its core isn't a groundbreaking game by any stretch. It's an orb-matching line'em up in the same vein as your Bejeweled's and Candy Crushes. What's impressive is how well the game rewards well planned moves. You have all the time in the world think about your next move and executing that plan becomes a tactile and fun experience. When you grab an orb with your stylus a countdown timer will start and you have a few short seconds to drag that orb to its desired location. What makes it interesting is that every orb you pass as you drag it fills in the space that your current orb previously occupied. It might sound complex on paper but it makes the path you take in each move just as important as the destination. Like many grid-based puzzle games before it there is a moment when the concepts click for the player and all the possibilities start pouring out like a deluge. It's too bad that such a rewarding and simple puzzle experience has to be diluted by so much extraneous padding...
Each round of orb-matching is framed by the game's RPG mechanics making each stage a battle between your party of allies, and a group of enemy monsters. Think something along the lines of Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. But unlike that game, which let's you enjoy the gameplay regardless of whether or not you understand the character customization and min/maxing systems, a stage in Puzzle & Dragons will often be won or lost based on character stats. A group of level 1 characters in Theatrhythm can get through any stage as long as you play well enough. That's not the case here where improperly balanced elemental attributes or low overall HP or luck of the draw or any combination of things can mean losing. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Fans of stat management will find a surprising amount of depth for a puzzle game. Characters can be upgraded, evolved, devoured for their precious EXP bonuses and your party can be chopped and screwed in an infinite number of ways. If you're looking for a lean, streamlined puzzle experience, expect P&D to interrupt your flow at every turn with its menus and reminders and numbers, numbers everywhere. So many numbers.
Those numbers are intimidating enough sitting where they are, but when the action kicks in and those numerals start flying all over the place as damage is being dealt it becomes obvious that someone in the graphics department is a big fan of modern slot-machines. This game wants to trigger those pleasure centres when you make a combo and it does so with the subtlety of a carpet bombing. Everything in this game explodes on impact in a storm of colour. It can be visually exhausting at times and positively scintillating at others but it's always a spectacle.
Puzzle & Dragons Z and Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Edition both feature minor tweaks to the game's foundational RPG mechanics but are still similar enough that their distinctions aren't likely make or break the experience. It is recommended that player's start with Z first as it contains the largest amount of tutorial and exposition - It's long and boring the first time around, I can't imagine having to sit through it when you've already learned the mechanics from playing Mario first.
Z is actually unique in this package for it's large amount of story. I was personally drawn to playing Z first because of the character designs that made me nostalgic for Pokemon and MegaMan Battle Network - little did I realize that the similarities would go much deeper than I imagined.
CUT TO: A professor explaining the word and how people in it work with dragons in harmony. Elements, training, battle, friendship, etc.
CUT TO: Bedroom. Tween player character walks downstairs from their room only to have mother explain that the professor is expecting them and they will soon being their journey.
CUT TO: Outside. Player's friends greet them and explain how excited they are to get their first monsters.
If the shades of every other catch-em-all-style RPG are apparent then the game's subtleties are not lost on you. Fifteen years ago I would have fallen for this immediately. I'd be halfway done making my geocities fan site complete with sprite edits and character profiles. Point being that Puzzle & Dragons Z captures that youthful exuberance that dominated my tween years. At this age I hardly care what Evil Syndicate X is trying to do to the world, using dragons (orbs?) as their power source. It's all Saturday morning cartoon silly, but it's not hard to tell that the localization team was plenty aware of that and decided to double down and play to the genre's strengths.
Almost every character in the hub town has something fairly clever to say and the dialogue with the game's bosses makes for some hilarious characters. They've discarded the overwrought melodrama of some contemporary shonen anime in favour of a healthy dose of slapstick comedy and absurd character personalities that make an otherwise forgettable story mode into a character-driven excuse to tell some really great jokes and have excellent interactions.
Super Mario Bros. Edition does away with most of the dialogue and story cutscenes to make room for non-stop gameplay. I don't doubt that some players will lean more towards this no-frills approach.
Obviously what makes SMB Edition appealing is it's use of plenty of classic Mario characters, locations and items. The game's aesthetic is mostly borrowed from the New Super Mario Bros. style bible so mileage will vary for some people depending on their love for that look. In fact I found some of the game's graphics mildly off-putting.
Puzzle and Dragons enemies are flat images of characters that are layered and tweened to have subtle movements like breathing and flinching. Seeing these Mario characters rendered in such a way almost looks like a cheap knock-off. It's definitely not a major problem but it takes some getting used to. It's also too bad that it doesn't always feel like the characters are being used in the best ways. There are plenty of enemies and characters that seem to have been given an arbitrary elemental attribute for the sake of keeping similar iconography as Puzzle & Dragons Z - There's no reason for Cat Mario to be a Dark/Fire-type... It seems like an opportunity to make different elemental attributes or create unique versions of characters was lost. And the characters that ARE used don't even go back any further than Mario Galaxy. It keeps everything stylistically similar, but there's a rich Mario history that could have been easily explored in a game like this. That being said it's still a blast to see Mario iconography transposed into a completely different kind of game with a completely different design vocabulary even if it doesn't hit all the marks all the time. And you will spend a lot of time.
Both Z and SMB Edition have tons and tons of stages. I made the error of thinking I was anywhere near the end only to have dozens of more stages revealed to me. Not to mention the free downloadable levels, the other game modes and the backtracking to find secret routes on certain maps. There is so, so much game in this package that it's hard not to recommend it on volume alone. It makes for a great title to have installed on your 3DS for quick rounds between bus stops or on lunch breaks, which is really what cemented the game as a standby on mobile platforms to begin with.